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Servants of Power: Higher Education in an Era of Corporate Control
US Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, author of the Powell Memorandum. (Photo: US Gov)

Servants of Power: Higher Education in an Era of Corporate Control

US Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, author of the Powell Memorandum. (Photo: US Gov)

“To tell the truth is revolutionary.”

“The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.”

– Antonio Gramsci

Over the last 40 years, we have witnessed a dramatic change in the structure of power in the United States. Since the mid-1970s, a one-sided class war has taken place and the ruling class has been winning. It has altered the relationship between capitalism and democracy, and in turn has subjugated a variety of institutions to the logic of capitalism. Douglas Frazier, former head of the United Auto Workers (UAW), took note of this class war early on, and more recently super-rich investor Warren Buffet has also commented on how his class has waged a very successful class war against the rest of the American population.

Academia has really been slow to assess the changing dynamics of capitalism and the erosion of democracy in the United States. Those who have written about this tidal wave of change have been marginalized by being labeled conspiracy theorists or radicals with an axe to grind – or professors who have not been able to climb the ladder to academic stardom.

One sees little discussion in mainstream academic publications of the profound influence that the Powell Memorandum (1971) has had on key institutions that make up the US cultural apparatus. Powell, who later became a Supreme Court justice, argued in his memo that business had to wage a counterattack against the left in American society. He urged the business community to mobilize and to finance conservative foundations, think tanks, media organizations and endowed professorships in order to advance a cultural war carried out by elites. Powell argued in his memo to the US Chamber of Commerce that business had to retake control over the media and the university as part of an orchestrated campaign to alter social and political discourse in America.

The most insidious effect which hegemony has had on American society is that it has shifted the range of debate to the right and redefined the acceptable policy options available to the major political parties.

Powell’s proposal was certainly ambitious and involved a long battle to bend institutions in the direction of the interests of the business community. This campaign was in direct response to gains made by the social movements of the 1960s and early 1970s and the legislation that was passed in response to these movements. In Powell’s vision, the goal was not just to blunt the influence of left and progressive forces in the United States; it was to fundamentally shift the country in a conservative direction by weakening labor unions, attacking the social wage, repressing social movements and recapturing the media and higher education.

What was to transpire over the course of the next 40 years largely followed the outlines of Powell’s proposal and dramatically altered the balance of power in the country by eroding democratic institutions and restricting public spaces. It is not an exaggeration to say that during this period, conservatives completely out-organized left and progressive social forces and changed the landscape of social and political discourse. Business ultimately benefited the most from this cultural war, although its major concern was – as always – commodifying more and more areas of life, expanding profitability and reconstituting ideological control, rather than engaging in the politics of morality.

The long-term consequences of this orchestrated campaign have resulted in the degradation of life in the United States as the institutions which previously undergirded the social safety net have come under fierce attack. In the process, the opportunity for the American people to hold the powerful accountable has been reduced to rituals of democracy which are more about form than substance. As Sheldon Wolin has eloquently argued in his book, Democracy Inc. (2008), the net result of this extended campaign by elites is a managed democracy with a demobilized public that blurs the lines between corporations and government and eviscerates concerns about the public good. Wolin maintains that the present social and political formation in the United States might best be described as “inverted totalitarianism.”

The political arena is structurally incapable of addressing the major problems facing the American people.

Taking the Powell Memorandum seriously and understanding what Wolin has asserted about the US political system does not involve embracing conspiracy theory. It is not the case that elites in the United States developed a plan to recapture major institutions and bend them toward the interests of business and did so without encountering resistance. As Marx was so fond of reminding us, capitalism always generates its own opposition and in the period from the mid-1970s to the present, there has been considerable resistance bubbling underneath the surface of American society. The long-term consequences of a successful cultural war by the right have been to shift the balance of social forces and institutions in the direction of business and to marginalize social justice movements. As the Occupy Movement illustrated, efforts by elites were unable to stamp out the opposition or contain the outrage generated by running the country solely for the interests of mega corporations.

As Antonio Gramsci argued, hegemony is never completely successful; it has to be constantly defended, revised and reproduced, and this involves a struggle between different social classes. However, probably the most insidious effect which hegemony has had on American society is that it has shifted the range of debate to the right and redefined the acceptable policy options available to the major political parties. The Democrats now represent center/right policy alternatives and the Republicans now represent right/extreme right policy prescriptions. Consequently, the political arena is structurally incapable of addressing the major problems facing the American people. The height of hegemony is when even the form and content of the opposition has been affected by the institutionalized thought structure. This is exactly what has happened in the United States when social movements have been marginalized or repressed, and when critics of society have been effectively contained. Consequently, the range of debate has been narrowed and the institutions that previously were independent and served as the conscience of society have been integrated into the social order. Wolin’s nightmare of inverted totalitarianism no longer seems far-fetched.

The Role of Academia in Inverted Totalitarianism

So how does academia fit into the grim picture painted above? Higher education, I would argue, has mimicked the trends in the larger society and can often be seen as a microcosm of this larger struggle. More and more universities and colleges in the United States have fallen into line and have functioned as servants of power. Fittingly, in 1984, I was asked to make a presentation at another university. I entitled my talk “Toward a Corporate Service Station.” I believed at the time that the university was being pushed and pulled in a direction that threatened its goals and ideals. Thirty years later, I believe even more strongly that the university has lost its soul and has auctioned off its services to the highest bidder. There is no better example of this trend than the growth of for-profit universities that make bundles of money from desperate students while strangling them with incredible levels of debt in pursuit of dubious credentials. However, it is too easy to just put this at the doorstep of for-profit educational institutions, because they are doing what they were created to do – make money and commodify education.

Even more disturbing is that universities and colleges are aligning themselves with corporate America. In 2008, I published a short essay called “The Struggle Against Corporate Takeover of the University” in Socialism and Democracy. I continue to be interested in the university as a microcosm of the larger struggle in American society involving the commodification of culture and the attack on the commons. I am also interested in linking what is happening in higher education to the attack on the middle and working classes: the growing polarization of American society, and the weakening connection between education, the American Dream and the promotion of democratic principles.

As Henry Giroux has so aptly put it, we are experiencing “the near death of the university as a democratic sphere.” Things have become considerably worse for universities and colleges since 2008, and the attack on these institutions has further degraded campus life and has put the traditional mission of higher education in peril. Faced with budget cuts, hostile legislatures, university administrators who increasingly identify themselves with corporate CEOs, and communities which have been buffeted by the forces unleashed by the economic crash, universities are increasingly being run like mega corporations.

In Giroux’s words, “Casino capitalism does more than infuse market values into every aspect of higher education; it wages a full-fledged assault on public goods, democratic public spheres, and the role of education in creating an informed and enlightened citizenry.”

We don’t have to accept the assault on university ideals and programs as inevitable or as another example of “there is no alternative.” Instead we need to forge a common understanding across sectors of the university community to resist corporate takeover of academe. To be successful in this project will require going beyond the academic community and reaching out to students, parents, workers and community members who have been adversely affected by the direction the university has taken. We must indeed see the university as an arena for struggle in order to revive higher education and its ideals and to contribute to the larger struggle for democracy and social justice.

The university did provide a rather unique public space to think, debate and criticize, and at least at one time, tried to teach students to be better, more engaged, public citizens.

As someone who has worked in higher education for his entire career, I sense a tremendous unease and decline in morale in academe. Some would say that this is normal because the university has been subject to the same technological forces as any other institution and inevitably this leads to changing the way people work. Surely, there is an element of faculty grumbling about having to do things differently and being subjected to increased scrutiny. But there is more than just this going on in higher education. Running a university like a business degrades all aspects of university life and negatively affects administrators, faculty, professional staff, workers, students, parents and the community. Commodifying education alienates people from each other, from the institution, from their work, and diminishes people’s expectations. Corporate logic changes priorities and changes the allocation of resources for the institution.

To argue against the corporatization of the university is not to harken back to the “good old days” in academe because, as Noam Chomsky has argued, “we should put aside any idea that there was once a ‘golden age.'” As Chomsky describes it, “things were different and in some ways better in the past, but far from perfect.” (Chomsky, 2014). He goes on to say that “traditional universities were for example, extremely hierarchical, with very little democratic participation in decision-making.” While his description is accurate, academe still maintained relative autonomy from society, and also paid lip service to ideals that go back to the Enlightenment. The university did provide a rather unique public space to think, debate and criticize, and at least at one time, tried to teach students to be better, more engaged, public citizens.

It was also generally the case that those who worked in academe believed that the institution was exempt from some of the pressures which affected other institutions, and that the university, despite what was happening in the larger society, would be successful in protecting itself from the corrosive effects of capitalist society. To be sure, in a previous era, many sought work in academe to maintain their independence, escape the restrictions imposed by capitalist society and work in a more humane and less commodified workplace.

All of this has changed in the last 30 years or so as universities have had to adapt to a rapidly changing social, political and economic environment. Instead of leading the fight against the decline of the public sphere and the erosion of democracy, universities have accepted the conditions imposed on them by neoliberalism and have adjusted to the new status quo. Instead of speaking truth to power they have more often become servants of power. The consequences for academe have been catastrophic for the institution and its mission, for the general public, and for the wellbeing of democracy. If the university fails to perform its functions to teach students to think critically and to serve as the conscience of society, what other institution in American society will assume these responsibilities?

As Giroux suggests, “Critical thinking and a literate public have become dangerous to those who want to celebrate orthodoxy over dialogue, emotion over reason, and ideological certainty over thoughtfulness.”

Wider Implications of Corporate Cooptation of Academia

The wider implications of the corporate cooptation of higher education and the success of the cultural war waged by elites since the 1970s are clearly explained by Sheldon Wolin:

Inverted totalitarianism, although at times capable of harassing or discrediting critics, has instead cultivated a loyal intelligentsia of its own. Through a combination of government contracts, corporate and foundation funds, joint projects involving university and corporate researchers, and wealthy individual donors, universities (especially research universities), intellectuals, scholars and researchers have been seamlessly integrated into the system…

During the months leading up to and following the invasion of Iraq, university and college campuses, which had been such notorious centers of opposition to the Vietnam War that politicians and publicists spoke seriously of the need to ‘pacify the campuses,’ hardly stirred. The Academy had become self-pacifying (Wolin, 2008:68).

College has become “the great unleveler.”

The seamless integration of higher education into the logic of corporate capitalism has created a new natural order of things where critics of the new social arrangements are chastised for not keeping up with the requirements of the post-modern economy and holding on to the past as the world passes them by. The university, it has been argued, had to reinvent itself to adjust to the current circumstances or it would lose out in the competition. The market would now dictate what the best practices would be in higher education and the guidelines for leading the institution would be adapted from the corporate world. What follows is an account of the corrosive effects of embracing corporate logic on higher education.

Corporatization of higher education has taken its toll on an institution, which previously was considered one of the great triumphs of the American system. Combined with rampant inequality, a college education is now more the province of the privileged and, as The New York Times recently pointed out, college has become “the great unleveler.”

As Mettler reports:

For those from the richest fifth, the annual cost of attending a four-year college has inched up from 6 percent of family income in 1971 to 9 percent in 2011. For everyone else, the change is formidable. For those in the poorest fifth, costs at State U have skyrocketed from 42 percent of family income to 114 percent.

A tiered system has evolved where the top 20 percent of the population is able to afford a university education. The bottom 80 percent is increasingly burdened with debt if they pursue post-secondary education, and they are consigned to schools in which the college experience often resembles vocational education. These trends are consistent with the imposition of a neoliberal agenda on a variety of American institutions.

The impact of corporatization distorts and reshapes the university, which in turn affects American society. I will focus on four areas which come to mind when examining the corrosive effects of corporatization on the university: 1) the way in which universities are administered in this corporate age, 2) the state of academic labor and how it has changed over time, 3) the redefinition of university education and the alteration of the curriculum to meet corporate influences, and 4) the decline of public intellectuals and the diminished role of universities as independent centers of thought and debate.

Henry Giroux, in his piece entitled “Beyond Neoliberal Miseducation,” cites Debra Leigh Scott who points out that “administrators now outnumber faculty on every campus across the country.” The top-down control of university governance by administrators has severely compromised faculty governance. Universities now recruit former CEOs of major companies or former prominent politicians to run complex university systems. Many of these recruits have no prior experience in academe and are not steeped in the traditions of the university community which they seek to lead. At Purdue University, the former governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels, now serves as president of the university. Almost immediately after Daniels took over at Purdue, a firestorm of protest by faculty and students ensued. This is just one example, but the time-tested way of doing things in a university system has been systematically dismantled. Like the larger society, an illusion of democratic participation in decision-making has replaced actual participation in university decisions and dissenters have been threatened with sanctions for questioning the current institutional arrangements.

Governor Pat McCrory of North Carolina illustrates clearly the mentality of conservative politicians and their attitudes toward university education. McCrory has argued: “If you want to take gender studies, that’s fine, go to a private school. But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”

As I mentioned earlier, university administrators have largely adopted business management principles, and units within a university are now evaluated as stand-alone units responsible for paying for themselves. This practice has seriously affected cooperation between departments and interaction with service units on campus, and has set off a wave of competition between schools within a university. Running a university like a business is relatively easy to institutionalize, but its intended and unintended consequences degrade the university environment and negatively impact the morale of everyone on campus. Under this system, the university runs more efficiently within a very narrowly conceived understanding of efficiency, but over time it tends to distort the allocation of resources on campus by shifting money and personnel to segments of campus that generate profits, attract grants and embrace neoliberal orthodoxy.

An illusion of democratic participation in decision-making has replaced actual participation in university decisions and dissenters have been threatened with sanctions for questioning the current institutional arrangements.

The area of campus in which the harshest effects of corporatization can be seen is the organization of academic labor. More and more faculty these days are hired off tenure-track in order to cut costs and establish greater control over academic labor. In 2007, according to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), 70 percent of the faculty on college campuses were adjuncts and other contingent employees. These trends continue as tenure-track faculty who retire are replaced by adjunct faculty. The pay of adjunct faculty is deplorable and their working conditions are just as bad as they travel between part-time teaching jobs and have little time – or even an office in which – to talk with their students. As James Hoff and other critics of the current practices of utilizing adjuncts assert, the system of low pay creates a hierarchy within academia and creates even more tiers within the system (Hoff, 2014). Ever mindful of the threat to their economic livelihood, contingent faculty have to toe the line and are not accorded the common courtesies extended to full-time faculty because their job security is at risk.

Hoff goes on to argue that universities now spend more on administration than they do on teachers. According to Benjamin Ginsberg’s book The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters, between 1985 and 2005 administrative spending increased by 85 percent and the number of administrative support staff increased by a whopping 240 percent. At the same time spending on faculty increased by only around 50 percent. Hoff also goes on to make the important point that students who are most in need, poor and working class students, first generation students and students of color are most frequently taught by adjunct faculty. The casualization of academic labor thus affects the quality of instruction by restricting the time that faculty can spend with students and the possibilities for mentoring opportunities. In addition, low pay for contingent faculty also calls into question whether someone can maintain an adequate standard of living by teaching in college or junior college.

Mirroring the inequality in the larger society, the average administrative salary, for instance, at the University of Vermont was $210,851 per year. This was more than seven times the annual salary of maintenance workers at the university (Jacobs, Counterpunch, Feb. 21-23, 2014). As tuition and other fees on campus skyrocket, the money generated is disproportionately allocated to the most privileged segments of campus, while the lowest wage workers on campus often qualify for food stamps. In a piece in Salon, Keith Heller has called the current practices at US colleges and universities “the Wal-Mart-ization of higher education.” He argues that more and more faculty are underpaid and undervalued.

The casualization of academic labor is gaining increased attention nationwide as parents, students and the university community come to grips with the skewed priorities of University, Inc. Some of the basic principles underlying effective pedagogy, such as small class size, individual attention and the importance of mentoring, are being sacrificed in order to increase head count, limit labor costs and create a one-size-fits-all educational experience.

Some of the basic principles underlying effective pedagogy, such as small class size, individual attention and the importance of mentoring, are being sacrificed in order to increase head count, limit labor costs and create a one-size-fits-all educational experience.

A key aspect of the movement to reorder the priorities of higher education is the redefinition of the university experience in line with neoliberal principles. Reflecting the inequality in the larger society, the college experience is being segmented by the kind of school that students are able to afford. Students from the top tier continue to enjoy the benefits of practices which are now increasingly only found at elite universities and colleges. In other tiers, for instance, a liberal arts education is devalued and in public universities that are not in the top tier, the educational experience emphasizes finding an area of study that will yield a job. Training has often been substituted for a broad liberal arts experience and students influenced by the difficult job market also question why they need to take subjects that are not directly related to what they will do when they leave college.

An instrumentalist approach seems to govern the organization of the universities where even the humanities and liberal arts seek ways to reinvent themselves in order to fit into the requirement of the market. Departments these days are pushed and pulled by the market and disciplinary traditions are often abandoned in favor of courses that will increase marketability. In sociology, for instance, statistics and methods receive considerable emphasis along with concentrations in criminology, social services and medical sociology, while courses in theory, political sociology, stratification, social psychology and social change are deemphasized.

The implications of this approach to college education and its connection to the political economy are clearly spelled out by Henry Giroux:

What has become clear in light of such assaults is that many universities and colleges have become unapologetic accomplices to corporate interests, values and power, and in doing so increasingly regard social problems as either irrelevant or make them invisible. The transformation of higher education in the US and abroad is evident in a number of registers. These include decreased support for programs of study that are not business-oriented; reduced funds for research that does not increase profit; the replacement of shared forms of governance with rigid business management models; the lessoning of support for academic fields that promote critical thinking rather than an entrepreneurial culture; the ongoing exploitation of faculty labor; and the use of purchasing power as the vital measure of a student’s identity, worth and access to higher education.

From the 1970s on, elites understood the critical role that universities and students played in the social movements that fought for social justice. By subjugating higher education to the same neoliberal discipline that they imposed on other institutions, they hope to gain control over the American cultural apparatus. If they could restructure higher education it would thus make the task of regaining social, political and economic control over American society easier. Elites no doubt anticipated resistance to their long-term goals, but felt that the university should be one of their primary targets because it encouraged critical thinking and provided space for thoughtful dissenters.

The reorganization of academia to more closely fit the goals of the corporate order also contributed to the decline of public intellectuals in US society. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was possible for public intellectuals to survive outside of academia, but this became increasingly difficult to accomplish in the later part of the 20th century. As knowledge became more bureaucratized and centered in a university setting, critical thought was institutionalized in the academy. To some degree, universities staked out a reputation for autonomy and independent thought, and as public intellectuals struggled to find places to publish their work and a way of carving out a living, they frequently took up residence at universities.

By subjugating higher education to the same neoliberal discipline that they imposed on other institutions, they hope to gain control over the American cultural apparatus.

However, especially since the neoliberal turn at the university level took place, there were fewer places in the university system that supported the humanities and liberal arts and, more particularly, critical thinking and alternate ways of understanding society. The individual disciplines contributed to this problem as they began to value methodological sophistication, quantitative approaches and arcane language in evaluating faculty research. In sociology, for instance, fewer and fewer faculty members were encouraged to do theoretical work and there were fewer outlets to publish critical essays on American society. In addition, more and more emphasis was placed on obtaining grants from the government or private foundations, which enforced disciplinary standards on what constituted valued research and creative activity. As faculty members chased grants to support their research, their research became more mainstream and less critical.

The discipline which spawned such interesting and challenging thinkers as David Riesman, Daniel Bell, C. Wright Mills and Lewis Coser, to name just a few, spurned theoretical work and essays which critically analyzed trends in American society. As Russell Jacoby long ago pointed out, there has been a serious decline in the number of public intellectuals in the United States. This is connected to the system of rewards in American universities and the closing of spaces within the university to support critics of society.

In a recent article in The New York Times entitled “Professors, We Need You,” Nicholas Kristof also laments the decline of public intellectuals by saying, “there are, I think, fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago.” The ability to write for the general public has also declined among university faculty. “All the disciplines have become more and more specialized and more and more quantitative, making them less and less accessible to the general public,” says Anne-Marie Slaughter, former dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University. Commenting further on the inability of university professors to write for larger audiences, Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian, says that there is “a great, heaping mountain of exquisite knowledge surrounded by a vast moat of dreadful prose.”

The narrowing of the career path for faculty in the corporate university has placed limits on the range of acceptable academic work.

In American sociology, there continues to be a debate about public sociology versus academic sociology, but this debate seems to be influenced by the new standards by which faculty research is evaluated. There are fewer and fewer junior faculty who are willing to become public intellectuals because it could adversely affect their academic careers. Certainly it is harder to gain grant support for critical work and it is also harder to find places to publish this work. With respect to theoretical work, critical essays analyzing social issues or historical comparative research, there are some in positions of authority in academe who question whether such work constitutes creative activity.

The narrowing of the career path for faculty in the corporate university has placed limits on the range of acceptable academic work. The growing use of contingent faculty has also had a chilling effect on the 25 to 30 percent of the faculty who have tenure-track appointments. Faculty no longer need to be reminded to toe the line; they have absorbed the rules of the game through professional socialization and they reproduce them in their intellectual work. Moreover, it is apparent that the current reward system in academia regularly provides benefits to those who do not challenge corporate hegemony.

The Promise of the University: Arena for Struggle

The promise of the university has been subverted by corporate power. The orchestrated attack on the university has taken its toll. The university used to be a place where critical thinking was encouraged, where the imagination was expanded, and democratic practices were extended. Corporate influence over the university has fundamentally changed the trajectory of the institution. Of course, universities bolstered the status quo in the past, as well, but they did provide opportunities for radical thinkers and they were not as dependent on corporate funding in the past.

The struggle against the corporate university is part of a larger struggle for social justice in American society. As I have argued in this paper, higher education is not exempt from the social and political forces that impacted other key institutions in American society. However, the fate of higher education has not been decided and the corporate restructuring of the academy is being resisted.

Higher education and its professoriate have been targeted because they represent a major reservoir of resistance to corporate control and the erosion of democracy.

As Antonio Gramsci reminded us, hegemony is not easily accomplished. It involves social, political and cultural struggle to produce and reproduce the dominant order. According to Gramsci, hegemony is never complete – it is constantly resisted even if only in a fragmented way. Just as there has been a war waged on women and the poor in the United States, there is a cultural war being waged on the ideals of the American university.

Higher education and its professoriate have been targeted because they represent a major reservoir of resistance to corporate control and the erosion of democracy. The last thing that elites want to encourage is a space in which critical thinking is nourished and a liberal arts education is valued. Universities naturally are places where one might find people who are trained to “think big,” and who have developed an understanding of the inherent contradictions of capitalism. It is for this reason that a campaign to restructure the academy into a corporate service station has taken place.

In the struggle for hegemony in American society, the university as traditionally understood is contradictory in nature. On the one hand, it has the potential to be a very unique commodity – one which makes bundles of money and one which helps elite ideas and elite ideology become hegemonic. On the other hand, it can play a crucial role in questioning the dominant ideology and producing critical thinkers. The contradictory role played by universities in American society has made higher education an arena for struggle over the last 30 years. Corporate elites seek to enlist the university in its battle to impose its will on the rest of society. They seek to blunt the critical impulses of the university and reinforce its role as a defender of neoliberalism.

The challenge to everyone in academia is to resist corporatization of higher education. We still have the capacity to imagine a different university that contributes to the fight to create a different, more peaceful and more democratic society. The goal should be to build a broader coalition for social justice, to reimagine the future and to create a counter hegemony. To do these things we must firmly reject the current path. We must be clear that the university stands for something greater and more humane than simply being a servant to power.


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